The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music: Mozart masterfully melds the emotional and the intellectual, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 1 of his two-part interview with The Ear

April 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)

Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.

Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.

Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.

“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.

Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.

Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.

Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?

Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.

Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.

Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?

From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.

Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.


Classical music education: Spring concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) start this Saturday and continue on Saturday and Sunday, May 16 and 17.

May 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) sent this timely reminder:

WYSO philharmonia orchestra

Starting this Saturday, May 9, and continuing on Saturday and Sunday, May 16-17, the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family Spring Concerts will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the UW George Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, Madison.

Tickets are available at the door: $10 for adults and $5 for children under 18 years of age.

On Saturday, May 9 at 1:30 p.m., WYSO will kick off the concerts with performances by its Percussion Ensemble (below top), Brass Choir, and Harp Ensemble (below bottom).

WYSO percussion Ensemble 2013

WYSO Harp Ensemble 2011

The following week, on Saturday, May 16, the Philharmonia Orchestra will start the day at 11 a.m. They will play four different works that morning beginning with Symphony No. 9, op. 95, E minor “From the New World,” movement 4, by Antonin Dvorak.

They will transition to Zoltan Kodaly’s Háry János: Intermezzo followed by two pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Overture to “The Magic Flute” and the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, K. 459. The piano concerto will feature concerto competition winner, Moqiu Cheng. Moqiu (below) is a seventh-grader at Hamilton Middle School and is also a violinist with WYSO.

Moquie Cheng

At the 1:30 p.m. concert, the Concert Orchestra will take the stage with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Simpson Dance of the Tumblers from ‘The Snow Maiden’. Hatikvah, a traditional tune arranged by Del Borgo is next followed by Richard Meyer’s, Tales of Vandosar. They will end their set with Robert Sheldon’s Triumph of the Argonauts.

Following the Concert Orchestra, WYSO’s string orchestra, Sinfonietta will end the day’s performances with several pieces including The Abduction from the Seraglio: Overture by Mozart, Richard Meyer’s, Carpe Diem!, and the Allegro from Sinfonia No. 6 in G minor by Johann Christian Bach.

WYSO Concert Orchestra violins

On Sunday, May 17, at 4 p.m., the Youth Orchestra (below top) will take stage at OVERTURE HALL — NOT Mills — along with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) in a side-by-side concert. The program will feature five different works showcasing the abilities of both orchestras.

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

WCO lobby

They will start with the Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich’s. Following that Soloist Adam Yeazel (below top), a senior at Middleton High School, will perform the Concertino da Camera for Alto Saxophone by Jacques Ibert.

adam yeazel

That will be followed by the cadenza and fourth movement of Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich featuring sophomore Maynie Bradley (below bottom) as the soloist.

Maynie Bradley

After a brief intermission the program will continue with Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations – including Theme I, VII, VIII, IX, XI, Finale and end with Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky in an orchestration by Maurice Ravel.

This is the third “Side by Side” collaboration between the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and WYSO.

According to WCO Maestro Andrew Sewell, “Side by Side” concerts give students “tremendous inspiration and the confidence to play difficult repertoire next to seasoned musicians. We are thrilled to bring this notable musical performance to Overture Hall.”

The public is invited to this free concert. Reservations must be made by calling the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra office at (608) 257-0638. Please note that places are being reserved for this concert, but there will be no tickets. Seating is General Admission. For more information please visit www.wcoconcerts.org.

These concerts are generously supported by the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family, along with funds from Dane County, the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of the The Capital Times, W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, and Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported in part by additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the State of Wisconsin, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

 

 


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, under conductor Kyle Knox, turns in its most impressive performance so far. The brass proves especially noteworthy.

February 28, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) on last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, at Middleton High School, drew an audience little deterred by snow and slow traffic, and greatly rewarded by the results.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The orchestra appeared this time under a guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who has prior and future connections with it and who is currently both pursuing graduate studies and conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Knox (below) is a musician of very distinct talents: a knowing perspective on the works he conducts, a propensity for well-thought phrasing, and an ability to achieve definite rapport with his players.

Regular MCO conductor Steve Kerr was wise to give Knox an opportunity to hone the podium talents of this very promising conductor, and as a stimulus to this steadily maturing ensemble. (Kerr himself eventually turned up working the bass drum.)

Kyle Knox 2

The MCO delights in taking on compositions that are both challenging and quite familiar. In testing themselves thus, the orchestra invites its listeners to measure its progress against the orchestras that have set extremely high performing standards in concerts and recordings. So it is proper that we do just that, especially in the beloved music from the score for the Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn.

The conventional five movements were played. In the fabled Overture, the strings had some struggles with their extremely demanding parts, but generally Knox achieved a well-integrated balancing of the elfin and the eerie.

Perhaps to avoid straining the players too much, Knox set a slightly slow tempo in the fairyland Scherzo, which sagged just a bit, but the Intermezzo was beautifully shaped.

Best was the evocative Nocturne, in which the French horn section demonstrated greatly improved tone and ensemble over recent showings, in a truly beautiful rendition. (You can hear the Nocturne in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Wedding March was also marked by a bit of ragged playing, but Knox paced it nicely and integrated it successfully. Overall, they get good marks for showing distinct progress in some very satisfying Mendelssohn.

Kyle Knox conducts MCO

The novelty of the program was the rarely played Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings by the 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (below). This was a late work, the only completed movement of what was to be a full-length oboe concerto, and was published posthumously.

barber 1

It displays the familiar qualities of Barber as the pre-eminent American neo-Romantic, in music that is gentle, gracious and lyrically flowing. But it also highlights another feature of Barber: the composer’s identification with the human voice. A fine singer himself (he was a baritone), Barber was a master of song and vocal music, and the solo oboe part is, to a considerable degree, a kind of song — as the title says, a “canzonetta” or small song.

The oboe soloist, Andy Olson (below), with his own long affiliations with the MCO, clearly recognized this characteristic, and realized it in his beautiful playing.

Andy Olson plays at MCO

Andy Olson oboe

For the finale, the other super-familiar score, was the dazzling — and very tricky — orchestration by Maurice Ravel of the solo piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (below).

Modeste Mussorgsky color

At the very outset, in the opening “Promenade,” the brass section displayed a new level of power and ensemble. The saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” was truly compelling. The heavy cartwheels of “Byddlo” were inexorable, and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” or “Baba-Yaga” (a sorceress) was truly ferocious.

The triumphant final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” was stunning. One feature of old Russian city portals was the inclusion of working chapels. I have never heard the hymn-like quality of the whole piece, with its interludes of liturgical chanting and tolling bells, so successfully evoked.

Overall, this performance was magnificent, and I have never heard this orchestra play so well.

It was a performance full of head and heart, with open-throttle devotion from the players. Knox obviously deserves much credit for this, but the players themselves made it clear that they owed no apologies for the results they could produce. (Below, conductor Kyle Knox singles out the brass for recognition by the audience.)

Kyle Knox applauds MCO brass

The MCO has proven itself to be, more than ever, a really extraordinary factor in the Madison area’s musical life. It is a non-, or semi-, or extra-professional ensemble whose music-making is truly inspirational. Its concerts should be supported and enjoyed by all our cultural community.


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